Bob Dylan, “Hurricane”
written by Ed McKeon
Pistol shots rang out in the barroom night
It could be the first line of an eighteenth-century murder ballad, but it’s not.
More than any songwriter, Bob Dylan ushered me through important changes in life. When I discovered his music as a teenager, it was “The Times They Are a-Changin’” that first moved me, but the hidden rebel that roiled beneath my meek adolescent exterior found focus for my anger in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” “With God on Our Side,” “The Ballad of a Thin Man” and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”.
My political views took shape, in part, through the outrage in Dylan’s lyrics.
But Bob Dylan abandoned topical songs about the time he famously picked up an electric guitar. I followed happily.
Once upon a time, you dressed so fine
You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?
In just-post-Vietnam 1975, as a grad student listening to the radio in Madison, Wisconsin, I was astonished to hear my hero return to protest music with a song about racism, injustice, inequality and corruption.
Bob Dylan, with co-writer Jacques Levy, was once again painting an unflattering portrait of a divided America.
“Hurricane,” about a then little-known middleweight boxer from Paterson, New Jersey—Rubin Carter—made me angry, and sad, and ashamed of America’s deep-seated hypocrisy and discrimination.
The story of Carter’s arrest and imprisonment wasn’t new. Dylan drew inspiration from Carter’s autobiography. Reportedly, Dylan was upset and didn’t know what to do with the agitation he felt about the injustice of Carter’s imprisonment, so he fell back on a form he’d abandoned years before – the story song.
Dylan created a masterwork.
Dylan and Levy’s rhyming couplets are laced with rage and shrewd interior rhymes (and occasional dropped rhymes) that bind the verses like an impenetrable weave. Like the “gun/one” and “deed/agreed” here:
And though they could not produce the gun
The D.A. said he was the one who did the deed
And the all-white jury agreed
And the names, the names…poetry in themselves—Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, Patty Valentine, Arthur Dexter Bradley, Alfred Bello—Dylan couldn’t have invented better. Conversely, Carter’s tormentors are all part of a faceless, nameless white wall; the cops are always, simply and insidiously, “the cops”; the judge, the newspapers and the all-white jury remain nameless.
Dylan was criticized by at least one Jersey columnist who lamented the reach of the songwriter’s poetic license. In reality, Carter likely never had a shot at the championship, nor was he as noble an innocent as Dylan portrayed. The exaggeration is part of Dylan’s chiaroscuro, where unchecked shadowy power attempts to snuff the brilliance of a man who dares to reach beyond the limitations of his station.
The song got one thing right: how people of color face a system of justice tilted against them. True then. True now.
Now all the criminals in their coats and their ties
Are free to drink martinis and watch the sun rise
While Rubin sits like Buddha in a ten-foot cell
An innocent man in a living hell
There’s no swaggering guitar work on this eight-and-a-half-minute masterpiece, just sturdy chords, but Dylan’s vocal phrasing is urgent and accusatory (far different than in the original recording where a slower tempo leaves the vocals less insistent). Scarlet Rivera’s riveting violin sutures the pain from verse to verse.
The song was released as a double-sided 45 RPM single in 1975 (where it rose to #33 on the Billboard pop charts), eight years after Carter was first imprisoned. The song, and benefit concerts, helped raise funds for a retrial. But it took two trials and a federal judge—who refused to listen to the song—before Carter’s conviction was overturned in 1985, when he was finally released from prison. Carter died in 2014.
Listening today, forty-five years later, the song’s power is undiminished. Like a good eighteenth-century murder ballad, it’s grown stronger and truer with time. In fact, listening today, I think, My god, things haven’t ‘a-changed’ at all.
The song admonishes and accuses. It points an unflinching finger at a broken system. It names names, and demands that we do better. It asks us all to challenge our own complacency as we witness one barbaric miscarriage of justice after another. It still makes me angry.
We might consider the fates of Sandra Bland or Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice or Eric Garner and grieve the fact that there isn’t a song for each; or worse, that there’s even a need for such songs in the first place.
Ed McKeon is folk and Americana music director and radio host at WWUH (91.3FM), at the University of Hartford, where he’s held the position for 35 years. His show, Caterwaul, broadcasts every Wednesday morning from 6-9 a.m. He has written extensively about music, providing reviews and profiles to Britain’s Folk Roots, and writing a weekly music column for the New Britain Herald for eight years. He’s also been published in the Oxford American music issue. Ed is a founding editor of the Middletown Eye, a hyperlocal news blog which has been posting about events in Middletown, CT for the past 10 years.